Maurice Stokes

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Maurice Stokes

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In 1958, Maurice Stokes was one of basketball’s best forwards. Today, he is one is one of the game’s least-known stars.

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At 6’7”, 240 pounds, Maurice Stokes moved like a gazelle on the basketball court. Possessing unmatched strength, quickness and guile, “He was Karl Malone with more finesse,” according to former Boston Celtics great, Bob Cousy. The second overall pick of the 1955 NBA draft, Stokes grabbed an NBA-record 1,256 rebounds in only his second year in the league. He averaged double figures in scoring and passed well enough to be among the NBA’s top assist leaders in each of his three pro seasons. “He was probably the first 6’7” guy that could have played guard,” observed Celtics’ hall-of-famer, Frank Ramsey. In his NBA debut in 1955, Stokes scored 32 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, and handed out eight assists. After leading the league in rebounding – including hauling in a franchise-record 38 in one game – Stokes was voted 1955-56 NBA Rookie of the Year. Two seasons later, he suffered a head injury, went into a coma, and was permanently paralyzed. Maurice Stokes’ career ended when he was 24.

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Stokes was born in Rankin, Pennsylvania – just outside Pittsburgh –June 17, 1933. One of four children – he had a twin sister and two brothers – his father worked in a steel mill and his mother was a domestic. At eight, Stokes moved with his family to nearby Homewood, where he later attended Westinghouse High School. He played basketball at Westinghouse, emerging as two-year starter as an upperclassman. After leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back city championships, he received ten scholarship offers, and chose St. Francis College in Loretto, Pennsylvania – alma mater of future NBA All-Star Stormin’ Norman Van Lier. A late bloomer, Stokes became a small college All-American. As a junior, he averaged 23 points and 22 rebounds, helping St. Francis to a 22-9 record and an NIT bid. The following year, he led the Red Flash to a fourth place finish at the 1955 NIT. After scoring 43 points in an overtime loss to Dayton in the semifinal, Stokes was named tournament MVP. In 1977, he was voted to the all-time NIT team.

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The Rochester Royals selected Maurice Stokes with the second overall pick of the 1955 NBA draft. Six spots later, they chose Jack Twyman, a guard from the University of Cincinnati. A superb shooter, the 6’6” Twyman was a native of Pittsburgh, where he and Stokes were fierce prep rivals. After earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1956, Stokes averaged 17.4 rebounds per game in his second season, and he and Twyman were named to the NBA All-Star Team for the first time. Prior to the 1957-58 season, the Royals moved to Cincinnati [they became the Sacramento Kings in 1985]. That season – his third in the league –Stokes finished second to Bill Russell for the NBA rebounding title, was third in assists, and upped his scoring average to nearly 17 points per game. He and Twyman were voted to the All-Star team for the second year in a row.

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In the final regular season game of 1957-58, the Royals traveled to Minneapolis to play the Lakers. Late in the game, Stokes drove to the basket, drew contact, and fell awkwardly to the floor, hitting his head. Knocked unconscious for several minutes, he was revived with smelling salts and returned to the game, finishing the night with 24 points and 19 rebounds. Three days later, Stokes played slow and heavy in the first game of the playoffs, which the Royals would lose in Detroit. After finishing with 12 points and 15 rebounds, he began to feel ill. He vomited twice in the Detroit airport and could barely board the plane. Once airborne, Stokes was covered in sweat, telling a teammate, “I feel like I’m going to die.” They were the last words he ever spoke.

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When the plane landed, Stokes was taken to a nearby hospital, where he remained unconscious for weeks. He was later moved to a Cincinnati hospital where he spent the next six years. The illness, which left Stokes a quadriplegic and unable to speak, was traced to the head injury he suffered against the Lakers. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor control center.

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Although he had a family of his own, Twyman spent countless hours at the hospital with Stokes who, after regaining consciousness, could not speak. Work obligations kept Stokes’ blue-collar parents from being able to get to Cincinnati often, so Twyman became Maurice’s legal guardian. The NBA had no pension plan at that time, and Twyman filed applications so Stokes could receive work injury compensation. To help raise money for medical expenses – which exceeded $ 100,000 a year — Twyman organized an exhibition game. In August 1959, Milton Kutscher provided rooms and food at his hotel and country club in the Catskill Mountains and Jack Twyman recruited 30 of the top players in the NBA to play in the first Maurice Stokes Memorial Basketball Game. The inaugural event, which raised $ 10,000, included stars like Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. More importantly, the “Stokes Game” became an annual affair that helped defray costs of Stokes’ ongoing medical care. It was later replaced by a pro-am golf tournament.

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We will never know how good Maurice Stokes might have been. “How would you like to be one of the premier athletes in the world on a Saturday,” Twyman recalled. “Then on Sunday, you go into a coma and wake up totally paralyzed, except for the use of your eyes and brain?” Twyman would sit by Stokes’ bed, calling out letters. When he got to the right one, Stokes would blink, allowing them to built words and share conversation.

Bobby Wanzer coached and played with Stokes. “If things had worked out differently, Maurice would have become one of the top ten players of all time.” In three NBA seasons, he averaged 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game while playing 37 minutes a night. “No one had seen a guy with that combination of strength, speed, and size,” recalled Twyman. Competitive, hard-nosed, and tough, Stokes was a coach’s dream.

On April 6, 1970, Maurice Stokes died of a heart attack. He was 36. In 2004, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Jack Twyman accepted on his friend and former teammate’s behalf. In 2013, the NBA established the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, presented annually to the player who embodies the league’s ideal teammate.

This Sunday, March 12, marks the 59th anniversary of the night Maurice Stokes fell and injured his head. It was the final game of the 1957-58 regular season.
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